By Alice Y. Ho, MD, MBA
When I was asked to write a blog for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I was uncharacteristically speechless. As a radiation oncologist who has specialized in the care of patients with breast cancer for nearly 18 years, I should have had plenty of intellectual insights or inspirational epithets, but I had none at the tip of my tongue. I’ve decided that I can only speak as a woman and share my story about how my friendship with a woman with metastatic breast cancer has had the transformative power of reinforcing to me why beating this disease matters so much.
My friend Jasmine is a vibrant, smart, generous woman who lives in Boston. She is truly beautiful inside and out. She’s always on the go. Our kids attend the same elementary school. Our husbands know each other from college days. Her two sons are the same age as my two daughters. She is an incredible cook and has impeccable taste in fashion. She is an astute businesswoman with elegant manners. Our other friends refer to her as “a perfect 10.” Jasmine has metastatic HER2+ breast cancer, for which she is being treated at a large academic medical center. She has received surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation (not given by me) and continues on systemic therapy.
When we talk about her breast cancer, we talk about it as friends, not as a medical professional and patient. I have seen her on the days she aches from chemo. I have seen the sadness, anxiety, and suffering that stem from not knowing what her future holds. She worries about leaving her boys and husband behind. She wants to travel the world with freedom, plans which are thwarted partially because of the pandemic, but mostly because she will chronically be receiving therapy. She has not reached the stage yet where she is angry, drops the mic, and says “**** you, cancer.” When I see her suffering, I feel angry and want to curse on her behalf.
As an examiner for the American Board of Radiology, my intention has always been to help educate the younger generation of radiation oncologists who will go on to improve the outcomes of thousands of women like Jasmine. But to make this mission personal for me, it took more than years of training and practice; it required seeing my friend fight breast cancer on a daily basis. Her struggle fuels my fire and reminds me why I have chosen my profession and why I can never settle for anything less than the best.
Coincidentally, I am currently designing a study testing the combination of radiation with immune checkpoint inhibitors and tyrosine kinase inhibitors for women with HER2+ metastatic breast cancer. If my research efforts improve her life, or the lives of all the women with breast cancer who rely on innovative treatments to live longer and better lives, I would feel that I have achieved more than I could ever ask during my career.
Jasmine, thank you so much. Not just for giving me thoughtful and tasteful gifts, cooking me gourmet meals, letting me lounge in your gigantic pool pagoda, styling my kids with clothes from your amazing store, and commiserating about our naughty dogs. Thank you for showing me, again and again, the human side of breast cancer and why raising awareness, as well as advancing education and research, MATTERS so much. Every pink ribbon I see during October reminds me of the hundreds of thousands of women who need us.
My life’s goal is to END breast cancer once and for all, so I can retire in peace and no longer have a job to do. Like Jasmine, I will never give up until this goal is achieved!
Dedicated to my friend, Jasmine Punzalan (Twitter: @kodomoboston)
Alice Ho, MD, MBA is a faculty member at Massachusetts General Hospital and an associate professor of radiation oncology at Harvard Medical School. She is a physician investigator with significant experience designing and conducting complex, multidisciplinary clinical trials with translational endpoints for high-risk breast cancer patients receiving radiotherapy. She believes that all radiation therapy for breast cancer should be tailored to the unique biology of the tumor. Her research focuses on identifying opportunities for enhancing outcomes in high-risk breast cancer patients by combining radiation with rational, biologically focused therapies such as immunotherapies and DNA repair-based agents in order to improve the efficacy of radiation. She currently serves as the overall PI for the first-of-its kind, randomized, phase II trial of immunotherapy and stereotactic breast radiotherapy (NCT04443348) and is a grantee of the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.